At the Heart of the Matter is Language

See our upcoming July issue for more on the new initiative to increase support for the Humanities, particularly language and literacy education!



At the Heart of the Matter is Language

In June, the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, a panel formed by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, published a report on the state of the humanities and social sciences in the U.S. at the request of Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA), Rep. Thomas E. Petri (R-WI), and David E. Price (D-NC). The report, entitled “The Heart of the Matter,” posits that the humanities and social sciences will foster a vibrant, competitive, and secure nation.

The introduction of the report notes the paradox of the U.S. narrowing and cutting programs in the humanities and social sciences just as other countries, such as China, look to our system as a model to develop these disciplines abroad. The humanities — composed of the study of languages, literature, history, film, civics, philosophy, religion, and the arts — and the social sciences — anthropology, economics, political science and government, sociology, and psychology — are often pitted against S.T.E.M. disciplines and deemed unnecessary or less deserving when the time comes for budget proposals and fiscal planning. The report calls for a change in attitude, pointing out that “all disciplines are essential for the inventiveness, competitiveness, security, and personal fulfillment of the American public.”

Proposed are three goals and thirteen broad recommendations for achieving them. The first goal is to educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a 21st century democracy. To reach the first goal, the commission recommends first and foremost that literacy be recognized as the foundation for all learning. Second, investments must be made in the preparation of citizens, meaning that students should have a strong grounding in history, civics, and social studies so that they may participate meaningfully in the democratic process. The third recommendation is to increase access to online resources, such as teaching materials and promoting the use of new technologies so that all students have access to educational materials. The last recommendation for meeting this goal is to engage the public by supporting museums, schools, cultural institutions, and libraries through public-private partnerships.

The second goal is to foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong. A major factor in this is encouraging inquisitiveness and perceptiveness along with the ability to share and build ideas with others. The recommendations involve promoting the humanities and social sciences to the public and making stronger connections with the world outside the ivory towers by increasing investment and promoting the importance in research in these disciplines. Furthermore, instructors and scholars must re-imagine school curricula by reversing the trend towards fragmentation. Humanities and social sciences should also connect with other areas by addressing “Grand Challenges,” such as clean air and water, food, health, energy, and universal education. Another key recommendation is to strengthen support for teachers by creating a Humanities Master Teacher Corps to match the Master Teacher Program for S.T.E.M.

Language study plays a particularly key role in the third goal of equipping the nation for leadership in an interconnected world. The first recommendation is to promote language study, “State and local school districts and colleges and universities should establish and expand programs to increase language learning.” Related to this are recommendations to expand education in international affairs and transnational studies, and to support study abroad and international exchange programs — all of which rely on foreign language instruction. The final recommendation is to create a Culture Corps that could promote and transmit the expertise of the social sciences and humanities from one generation to the next.

The report also cites some startling statistics about the state of the humanities and social sciences today. For example, federal funding for international training and education has been cut by 41% over the last four years, while employers are calling for schools to place more emphasis on the critical thinking, problem-solving, and oral communication skills that such programs teach.

Reaction to “The Heart of the Matter” has been mixed. Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association shared her support with The Chronicle of Higher Education, "The distinguished members of this commission have produced a far-reaching and thoughtful report,” and commended the committee for their support of expanding language study.
However, Stanley Fish from The New York Times criticized the commission for not addressing, “the converging factors that accelerate the rush to vocationalism and short-term payoffs — the mania for online education, unsupportable student debt, rising costs in every area of a college’s operation, the Internet’s preference for chunked-up bits of information, the elimination or radical downsizing of French, Russian, German, religious studies, theater and other programs because they cannot be justified under zero-based budgeting assumptions.”
While William E. White from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation was full of praise, “It reminds every citizen that our nation — built on Enlightenment ideals and the study of the humanities — cannot endure without lifelong study of literature, arts, philosophy and history.”

The report is available at humanitiescommission.org.